Crisis in Lebanon Reaches New Threshold

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 26, 2006

BEIRUT, Nov. 25 -- Lebanon's fragile government, defying warnings from Hezbollah, on Saturday approved an international tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, an enormously symbolic step for a country paralyzed by division and anticipation.

The decision by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's cabinet, taken at night with a large military presence in downtown Beirut, set the stage for the country's month-long political crisis, which has so far escalated almost in slow motion, to enter a much less predictable period. In effect, the approval of the tribunal pits a coalition underpinning the Lebanese government, backed by the United States and France, against the radical Shiite movement Hezbollah and its allies, supported by Iran and Syria.

"This is not a provocation against anyone, nor will it be a provocation against anyone," Siniora said in a statement read after the cabinet meeting by the information minister. "On the contrary, it aims at protecting everyone."

Hezbollah read the vote as a blunt challenge, denouncing the cabinet as illegitimate and renewing its threat to take to the streets to bring it down. The movement and its allies negotiated their response Saturday night, but several officials said protests would commence after the seven-day mourning period for Pierre Gemayel, the industry minister who was assassinated Tuesday on a busy suburban Beirut street.

"This is an unconstitutional and illegitimate meeting of an unconstitutional and illegitimate cabinet. Our reaction will become clear in the coming days," Hussein Hajj Hassan, a Hezbollah member of parliament, said in an interview. "It is going to include all kinds of activities, because they have taken things to an unacceptable place."

But, he added, "we're not in a hurry."

Lebanon's crisis, its most recent phase ignited last month when Hezbollah demanded a greater share of representation in the cabinet, is playing out at levels that extend far beyond the borders of the small Mediterranean country.

The coalition backing the government has said Hezbollah's decision to withdraw its ministers and allies from the cabinet on Nov. 11 was meant to block the convening of the international court to try the suspected killers of Hariri and opponents of Syria assassinated since last year. A U.N. investigation has suggested that Lebanese and Syrian intelligence services were behind Hariri's death, but has yet to conclude. Four Lebanese security chiefs have been in custody for 14 months. In a letter Friday to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Syria complained that it was not consulted about the court's creation and suggested that it would not cooperate.

Hezbollah has said the issue is not the court, but the government. Hezbollah insists the government is no longer legitimate without the participation of Shiite ministers, who represent Lebanon's single largest community in a political system founded on the notion of sectarian consensus.

Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said the two sides negotiated until minutes before the cabinet convened Saturday evening, to no avail. Hassan, the legislator, however, called the discussions "silly attempts and a stupid repetition of positions and unacceptable solutions."

Technically, the government decision still requires the approval of President Emile Lahoud, an ally of Syria who has said the decision was unconstitutional given the ministers' resignations. Without his approval, it would go to parliament, which can be convened only by the speaker, Nabih Berri, an ally of Hezbollah. Berri's aides say he has no plans as of now to do so.

In a country whose crises are almost always interlocked with regional and international relations, the fights over the court and the cabinet are overshadowed by the bigger struggles underway: Which of Lebanon's factions -- and, by default, its foreign patrons -- will exercise the greatest influence over the future?

Hezbollah's opponents -- a coalition of Sunni Muslims, Druze and Christians that takes its name from the mass protest on March 14, 2005, that helped force the end of a 29-year Syrian military presence here -- see Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iran as representing the greatest threats to Lebanese stability. Hezbollah, allied with an influential Christian politician, Michel Aoun, views the government as beholden to the United States and its interests.

"I am not very hopeful," said Amin Sherri, another Hezbollah parliament member, speaking after the vote. "Why? We have to see who's putting pressure on them. That side is the United States."

Punctuated by drama and interspersed with stretches of anticipation, the crisis has, until now, played out in almost expected ways. The vote Saturday was, in some ways, a formality. Even the killing of Gemayel, an anti-Syrian politician from a prominent Christian family, followed predictions by other politicians that assassinations were ahead. But the March 14 coalition turned Gemayel's funeral into a protest and show of force Thursday, mobilizing tens of thousands of its followers.

A counter show of force by Hezbollah appears inevitable -- Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah reiterated such a warning Friday -- although Sherri and Hassan said nothing was expected within the next 48 hours.

The prospect of sending the crisis into the streets has unsettled Beirut, a city whose diversity is often segregated and whose communal tension is as pronounced as at any time since Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war. With Christians divided between the government and Hezbollah, the confrontation has taken on a Sunni-Shiite dimension that is somewhat new to Lebanese politics. Its resolution will help determine which community, at the very least, wields an effective veto over political decisions.

"Internally speaking, Hezbollah cannot lose and doesn't want to lose. March 14 and the government cannot lose, and they don't want to lose," said Sarkis Naoum, a columnist for al-Nahar newspaper. "The loss for either side means this country will head in some direction that can be different. That's why I think both of them will take the confrontation to the end."

The crisis has paralyzed Lebanon, still reeling from last summer's war between Hezbollah and Israel. Following Gemayel's assassination, several Lebanese ministers took up residence in the government headquarters, known as the Serail, for protection.

Competing television stations -- the Sunni-owned Future channel and Hezbollah's al-Manar -- have waged a propaganda war of escalating invective. In one news bulletin, al-Manar called Walid Jumblatt, a Siniora ally and mercurial leader of the Druze community, a snake "spreading his venom." At Gemayel's funeral Thursday, protesters burned pictures of Aoun and shouted obscenities at Nasrallah. Hours later, scores of Shiite residents took to the streets in protest, temporarily blocking the airport road.

Asked whether he saw a solution, Naoum said, "I don't think so.

"I don't know, I'm scared. I'm scared," he said. "They are so mobilized, the Sunnis and the Shiites, that once they go into the street, it's possible that no one can control them."

Special correspondent Alia Ibrahim contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company